Saturday, March 26, 2005

Easter in Rome....

His greatest performance

In his agony, the Pope invites us to share something truly instructive

Martin Kettle

The Guardian March 26, 2005

In spite of all the dramas and distractions of the modern world, I bet that right now there are millions of us whose attention is repeatedly - and sometimes unwillingly - drawn back to the most public private ordeal that many of us have witnessed.
Even for those, like me, who are neither Catholic nor even Christian, these last days of Pope John Paul II - for that is surely what they are - have become an inclusive and shared drama. It is more than the 21st-century habit of voyeurism that makes it difficult to turn our eyes away from the Vatican this Easter weekend. For the ailing Pope is speaking to all of us, saying things about life and death that touch everyone in some way.

It is nearly two weeks since John Paul was driven back to his apartments from the Gemelli hospital in Rome after a tracheotomy operation. Vatican aides, and the Pope himself, put on an extraordinary show, especially considering his age and physical weakness.
They did everything they could to imply that the pontiff had made a strong recovery. He sat upright in the front seat of a grey Mercedes van, in full view but with his papal robes drawn tight around his neck to conceal the tube that had been inserted into his throat to ease his breathing difficulties. Behind his left shoulder, a camera crew captured the 84-year-old Pope waving to delighted roadside crowds.
It looked - and it was intended to look - as though everything was normal. But of course it was not normal at all - and we knew that too. It may, after all, have been the Pope's final earthly journey of significance. It was in many respects an El Cid moment - a form of defiance through faith that John Paul has gradually perfected through his career - suggestive of the climax of the Spanish epic when the dead Cid is strapped into his saddle to lead his troops into battle against the infidels one last time.
Since then, the Pope has made five very brief public appearances, either in person or on video, all intended to create the illusion that he remains vigorous and fully in charge of the church. At the start of this week, on Palm Sunday, he appeared at his window, silently waving an olive branch to pilgrims below.
Yesterday, Good Friday, he was due to participate by video link. Tomorrow, of course, comes the greatest challenge of all when the Pope has promised to be present in person to deliver the traditional Easter Sunday blessing, perhaps for the last time. The Italian press is calling it his Calvary.
Each of these appearances, though, only serves to underline the fragility of the Pope's real condition. The day before he left hospital, he spoke just a few words - first in his native Polish and then in Italian - from a sheet of paper in front of him.
But the Parkinson's disease from which John Paul has suffered for more than a decade has now robbed him of his ability to speak comprehensibly, even in private, never mind in public. Biographers such as John Cornwell suggest that this has been going on for some time. Speech was already a struggle when he received Archbishop Rowan Williams in October 2003. I know this stage in the progression of the disease. I saw the same thing happen to my own father 20 years ago.
John Paul II has conducted a very public battle with mortality for a large part of the past quarter century, ever since the Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca shot him in the stomach in St Peter's Square in 1981.
About 10 years later, after a recovery from his wounds that provided evidence of his physical and mental strength, John Paul's Parkinson's was diagnosed. Since then, the signs of his age and infirmity have gathered in on him inexorably: at least three falls, increasing knee problems, intestinal difficulties and the growing vulnerability to flu and other viruses that comes with degenerative weakness.
The determination not to give in is palpable and, given who he is, also intriguing. Like the Queen - whose authority in some eyes is also divine - there is not a thought of retirement. Personal convenience is dismissed as irrelevant. Christ, this Pope once told a group of pilgrims, did not come down from the Cross. John Paul has no intention of coming down from his.
But nor, in spite of the show of normality that he sometimes puts on, does the Pope intend to slip quietly into the shadows. He could easily withdraw, allowing a fiction of health and alertness to be maintained by the practised Vatican spinmeisters. It was what they did when Paul VI became ill in the mid-70s. John Paul, though, has chosen to ensure that we witness his passion. Every appearance at the window must, when you consider it, be a gruelling ordeal. But that, surely, is why he does these things, because he wants us to know and wants us to think about them.
However stricken he may be, even and especially now, John Paul clearly wants to leave no one in any doubt that he is fighting with death to the very end. He was described this week, by a senior cardinal, as "serenely abandoning himself to God"; but that is not the impression he conveys at every opportunity he gets.
His very insistence on showing himself to us is part of the struggle. It reached an eloquent climax on Palm Sunday, when he gripped his forehead as though in pain, then beat his hand on his lectern as if in frustration.
It is an extraordinary performance. All priests perform, of course, as all politicians do. And it is important to remember that the young Karol Wojtyla was stage struck. He trod the boards of the Rhapsodic Theatre in Krakow 40 years before he trod the world stage.
All the biographies make clear that Wojtyla had a large ego, too, long before he sat on the throne of St Peter. If you believe that the Virgin Mary interceded to deflect Agca's bullet from his vital organs, as John Paul does, or that you are the subject of one of the visions of the three seers of Fatima in 1917, as he also does, then you do not go gently or quietly.
Everyone fights for life. None of us seeks death. People always want to survive. John Paul, it turns out, is no different from the rest of us. He may be the vicar of Christ but even he does not want to go before his time.
But John Paul is also doing more than fight for his own life. He seems to be using his position and fame to make a statement about all lives. He is saying that he is unwilling to be shunted off the stage before he is ready to go. He is saying that his suffering is universal. But he is saying, above all, that all lives are valuable, and that he is entitled to live his life to the very end, however hard it may be.
Believers will, of course, look for more - and find it. John Paul undoubtedly wants the faithful to draw lessons from his agony: lessons about euthanasia and assisted suicide, lessons about abortion, lessons about compassion, lessons above all about faith. Some non-believers may draw those lessons too.
But you don't have to embrace any of these to recognise that we are witnessing not just something remarkable, but something rare and instructive. All significant moments in life are hard to anticipate, but death is the hardest of all. John Paul is allowing us to share the enduring nature of that truth, even for a Pope. We are not just entitled to look. It is important that we should.


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